The reasons are well known: People treat e-mail like face-to-face communication. We're used to saying things out loud and having our intentions, mood and demeanor correctly interpreted by the person we're speaking with. But when you strip away facial cues, social context, tone of voice and other information, people can easily misunderstand.
Research tells us that both sender and receiver tend to automatically fill in the "tone" of an e-mail conversation — but they're not getting information about the tone from the e-mail itself. They're basically making it up based on how they feel or what they fear, not what's actually being said.
Unfortunately, just knowing all that won't necessarily prevent you from being misunderstood. Researchers Michael Morris and Jeff Lowenstein were collaborating recently on a research project to study the phenomenon of misunderstood e-mails when they got into a huge argument because one had misunderstood the e-mail of the other. It can happen to anyone, no matter how knowledgeable.
Studies have shown that some 44 percent of e-mails are incorrectly interpreted in some way by the receiver of the message.
Here's the worst part: Most of these e-mails go unchallenged. You might be angering people, bruising egos or burning bridges and you'll never even know it.
Here are my best tips for making sure you don't accidentally annoy, anger or intimidate the people you communicate with over e-mail.
* If you're joking or being sarcastic, use surrogate facial cues like smiley faces — : ) — or type "[grin]" or use some other indicator of your intent. They seem trivial, but are very important.
* Use plentiful qualifiers such as "don't take this the wrong way," "I'm joking," or "I'm not angry at all."
* Beware of brief e-mails, as they can be interpreted as brusque. An e-mail with just a word or two can be interpreted as frosty, angry or demeaning.
* Start the e-mail with something obviously humorous, which conveys that you're not angry.
* Be aware of who you're talking to. It's very easy for a co-worker or subordinate at work to read anger, disappointment or other negative emotions into your notes. If you're a manager, you need to go out of your way to send friendly e-mails or you'll end up with a morale problem. In-laws and relatives might be easily offended as well.
* End your e-mail with something nice, such as "thank you!" or "hey, I really appreciate this."
* Always re-read your e-mails before sending — and be on the lookout for areas of misinterpretation.
* Don't get angry from e-mail, then reply based on your anger. First find out the intent of the sender by calling, or asking for clarification. Remember: nearly half of all e-mails are misinterpreted.
* Don't use e-mail for emotional or sensitive topics. Pick up the phone or visit in person.
* Bonus tip: Be aware that if you're talking about someone, you're more likely to accidentally send that person the e-mail. Make sure you address e-mail to the right person, especially if you're talking about a third party.
So there you have it: My best tips for keeping the peace on e-mail. After all, you're sending messages in order to communicate, not miscommunicate. It's an art form that, once mastered, will serve you well for the rest of your e-mail-sending days.
Mike Elgan is an American journalist and author who writes opinion columns for Insider Pro, contribute news analysis pieces for Fast Company and SecurityIntelligence and also writes special features, columns and think pieces for a variety of publications reaching millions of readers each month. He's the author of Gastronomad: The Art of Living Everywhere and Eating Everything!